A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
[ed. note: This is the preface to The Visit by Sharon Doubiago, published by Wild Ocean Press]
Jack Retasket is a Native American/Canadian Shuswap-Lillooet (Statlmx) survivor of Kamloops Indian Residential School where he was imprisoned at the age of five—legally separated from this twin sister, his mother and father, ten other brothers and sisters, home and tribe. At seven he was raped by his Oblate, Brother Shirley; his account of that rape is at the center of this poem. At thirteen he ran away from Kamloops—across the U.S. border to Oroville, Washington to his family who had fled there to work as apple pickers in order to escape the mandatory placing of their younger children into Kamloops; the parents themselves had been incarcerated there as children. In 2004 at the age of 54, Jack Retasket was arrested and convicted of sexual violation of a female child under twelve, his girlfriend’s daughter seven years previously, and sentenced to fifteen years in Oregon’s Two Rivers Correctional Institution. “The Visit” is an investigative poem in the Ed Sanders’ tradition, a protest poem, and a love poem.
I was completing the first draft of My Father’s Love, the memoir of my father’s sexual violation of me from infancy to twelve, when Jack was arrested. One month after his arrest, Neil Goldschmidt, the popular ex-Governor of Oregon confessed to a similar crime but the statute of limitations meant he could not be arrested. Six months later Jack was found guilty in Newport Oregon. “The Visit” tells Jack’s full story as I know it and he has allowed me, and invokes the contrite Goldschmidt for his help, “that you work to free him/that you find self-forgiveness in this act of atonement.”
In the beginning I believed Jack, that he is innocent. Then through the slowly evolving meditation, our correspondence, my attempted poem here and my own background, I came to consider that he is possibly guilty. How do I write that and maintain my fidelity to both him and to my vision? What is my responsibility? To his victim? What is my responsibility to society, to myself? Whatever, the unequal treatment, legal and social, of these two men, Goldschmidt and Retasket, is blatant.
The earliest version of “The Visit” was three pages, completed in 2006, soon after my first prison visit to Jack. I read it in a reading I gave at the San Francisco/North Beach Library. A woman poet friend, who I respect and love, a grieving widow who is a kind of lay nun for the Catholic Church here in San Francisco, said something like “all this stuff is just people out to destroy the Catholic Church.” That pretty much stopped me then: I had failed in the task of my poem. But then came the 2011 revelations of Elizabeth Lynn Dunham on her deathbed at forty-nine, the once thirteen year old daughter of Governor Goldschmidt’s campaign manager, and still more of Goldschmidt’s contrite disclosures. In the long process of writing My Father’s Love, I’d gained the strength to withstand the world’s denial and condemnation (including of my family and friends), but these ongoing developments with Jack Retasket and Neil Goldschmidt were devastating. The last time I saw my beautiful San Francisco Catholic friend, in 2013, she told me that she was sexually violated by her older brother. Then she more or less disappeared from my life again.
In the beginning I had the intent of requesting Neil Goldschmidt’s support, and so in the poem I named Jack by his names, places and stories, ways that the crime of which he is accused and convicted could be tracked. Now, ten years later, the poem has a different feel, a different intent, perhaps. Jack is beginning to anticipate his release in four years, of returning to his Canadian Reservation home, and/or of enrolling/being employed in his sisters’ Native programs at Northwest Indian College—formerly Lummi Community College—of starting a new life (at age 68). And so a new issue: should I disguise him now? His articulate, beautiful letters fill many boxes; I’ve visited him twice (only twice, having returned from my long residency in Washington and Oregon to California). Though I personally dislike the telephone I accept most of his calls. He’s been suicidal at least twice since his sentencing in 2004, and is physically handicapped from the first attempt in Lincoln County Jail when the new Measure 11 guilty verdict came in. Loyal that I’ve been and am, I do fear that revealing that I consider him possibly guilty could cause him once again to try and off himself. I’ve given him the choice of disguises; he insists that I “go for it.” (But the prison censors won’t allow him to read sections #3, 4, and 5 here, though most are his own words which he wrote and sent out from there.) I pray he has found the inner strength and political and inspirational wisdom to stand by his insistence, and realizes the deep healing and spiritual quest possible for all of us in such work.
Few have understood my fidelity and unwavering love for my father which I learned through prayer and my childhood church, Trinity Bible Church up on the corner of Industrial and Main, in Hollydale, California. The soul-deep example and spiritual lesson of Jesus saved my sanity. (I do not refute that now, though—and I must state this—I disavow the Christian church.) Jesus taught me to Love and to Forgive and to know a kind of Negative Capability, John Keats’ complexity of thought and possibility. I never hated my father, I hated what he did to me. “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” Black and white thinking, as my father himself lectured (though trying to beat me down) is war mentality; truth and genuine resolutions are found in deeper approaches.
My knowledge of the State’s perpetuation of the problem and suffering is not altered from what I knew at seven. I do not regret the protection of my father then and I would repeat it today. I do regret my family’s and society’s vast psychosis, the inability to address what has been labeled as humanity’s oldest sin. I think I finally comprehend the depth of my father’s violation of me—and of all men who violate children.
I have the deep sense that male sexual violations, especially of their daughters and sons and other young ones, is largely a cultural/patriarchal phenomenon not wholly or solely natural to the male, as is fiercely maintained. Male sexual violations are about the male role, learned. The male role is psychological, manipulative. Prescribed, not organic. Habitual: once learned, nearly irreversible. If there are cultural studies of human sexual violations outside the reported ones—Christian, Judaic, Buddhist. Hindu, Moslem, et al, all based on the notion of male gender superiority—I have not found them.
In our patriarchy the boy, helpless and in love with his mother, grows up to find his manhood in overpowering women. Especially his wives (and daughters and sons that come from her body). This is one of our most simple and clear reversals, but which, along with rape, we seem unable to examine. Somewhere I have a poem about human fecal and urinary control. Universally, the very young human gains control of this profound physiological phenomenon. We could, and must, do the same, sexually.
Our sexual perversities are a bad shadow of patriarchy. There are in fact other cultures through time which are not of the murderous, sexually crazed mania that we are. But to pursue study of such is problematic because the published journalists, writers, memoirists, scholars, religious leaders, poets and thinkers on other cultures are profoundly rooted in our own.
The Cherokee, for instance, of which I am part, is matriarchal (or was); the male is the “father” figure for his sisters’ children, not of his own, this in recognition of the psychotic imbalance of power that patriarchy would give him. Divorce is simply the wife putting his stuff outside their dwelling; he returns to his mother and sisters’ homes.
Once I had a love who, leaving the Catholic seminary in his early twenties where he had been sexually violated from early teens, spent two years in the so-called Combat Zone of Boston, the prostitution neighborhood, to overcome his attraction to young boy students, to not repeat what had been done to him—and done to Jack in Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Shockingly, my otherwise fine, still usable Webster’s New World 1984 Dictionary defines rape as “the crime of sexual intercourse with a woman or girl forcibly and without her consent.” There has been little accounting of forcible adult male sex with boys, a blatant bias and tragic inaccuracy of patriarchal scholarship. I’ve actually heard men exclaim that this is not homosexuality!)
One of my earliest readings of the work that became my father memoir was in Ukiah, California, 2000, where through the years I’ve been an honored poet and writer. Afterwards, one man asked, genuinely, it seemed, “Do you ever deal with why?” I continued to think on that question a long time, actually it sort of haunted me. He meant that I was irresistible to my father. Thus the poem here, “Irresistible,” long in the making. (Again, we learn urinary and fecal control of our otherwise irresistible physical urges and needs.) “Irresistible” sex is a much promoted, celebrated patriarchal myth.
A Mendocino male poet friend shared with me, in innocence, or so it seemed, his long meditation on whether he should have sex with his daughter, that, conceivably, it was his paternal duty! I had heard this debate all my life, starting with my beloved Gae at seven, who was also being sexed by her father, her parents being early members of the Sexual Freedom League which advocated such sex. In the end he assured me that he decided he shouldn’t (probably in response to the active feminism there and my not responding to his sharing) but again, outrageously, his pondering that it was his responsibility seemed genuine. I think here of the two contemporary French philosophers, Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault who advocated sex with children, in vast evil blindness to what constitutes the human soul.
As an Oglala Miniconjou Lakota Sioux,3 what was Crazy Horse’s sexuality? What were his sexual fantasies after age thirteen when he found the body of his secret love, the sister of Long Spear at the Sand Creek Massacre? Her pudendum was scalped, a practice not uncommon among the US Army in the western Indian wars; soldiers wore scalped Native vulvas on their caps.
“and the boy Crazy Horse sees with great lightning spears
that are brighter than the sun, as thunders shake the earth,
these dead ones with their faces open to the storm
are his people
fetuses lying outside their mothers’ knifed-opened bellies
and the blue-painted dress
when he pulls it down from her face
is the young sister of Long Spear
her wide sleeves like flying wings pulled up
and she is scalped in a bad place”
All my life I’ve pondered Native American cultures (and other non-western ones around the world), mainly the matriarchal ones, as holding possible solutions to our sexual pathologies—different psychologies, sexualities, values, social customs, organization, spirituality and love. I’ve developed methods of writing memoir (including memoir poems), methods and aesthetics of remembering and writing that are contrary to many contemporary memoir aesthetics and practices (mainly that memory is fallible, unreliable; that making things up is the Creative, the Poetic). Because I was always labeled a liar by my family terrified that I would tell, verifiable facts are important to me. My need not to make a mistake or tell an untruth, not to consciously fictionalize or fabricate, is immense, is spiritual. (But of course, mistakes are not entirely avoidable.)
In my life-long, prayed-for story my father confesses his mistake and terrible violation of me, which in fact he did do four months before his death (My Father’s Love, Volume II, Chapter 17)—though inadequate to the life-long violation, psychic as much as physical, that he imposed on me and all the family. In my dream he is confessing because he knows the damage he did to me, to all of us, and to himself. In his confession I am meeting him. I am not falling to that other pole, I am not sadomasochistic. I am his keeper.
Copyright 2015 Sharon Doubiago. Reprinted by permission of the author and Wild Ocean Press..